Friday, November 21, 2014

Worth Mentioning - Ouija Look At That?

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody checks out sequels to Witchboard and tussles with more kaiju and cannibals.


Seven years and four movies after making his feature directorial debut with the cult classic Witchboard, writer/director Kevin S. Tenney returned to the concept with a sequel connected to the original movie only through the idea of characters communicating with a deadly spirit by way of a Ouija board.

The lead character is a young woman named Paige Benedict, who is torn between her potential career as a CPA and her true aspiration, to be an artist. She has always been meek and submissive in her life, but now that her father has passed away and she has broken up with her police officer boyfriend Mitch, neither of whom supported her dreams, she's starting to consider taking her own path.

Her new approach to life begins with moving into her own apartment. While putting things away in a closet, she finds an item left behind by the previous tenant. A Ouija board (with designs like the board in the first movie). Placing a hand on the planchette, Paige jokingly enquires, "Hello, anybody home?" She is shocked when the planchette moves on its own and a spirit answers: Yes.

That begins Paige communication with the spirit of the apartment's previous occupant, a "smart, sexy, independent, tough" exotic dancer named Susan Sydney. The more Paige talks to Susan, the more she begins to take on the qualities Susan had. She takes control of her life, confronts those who have done her wrong. And she starts creating art, like she always wanted to.

In between Ouija sessions, she also strikes up a friendly and potentially romantic relationship with photographer Russel Upton, younger brother of her landlord Elaine, a woman perpetually mentally stuck in 1969.

But things aren't all perfection and life improvement. This is a horror movie, you know? Sometimes while Paige is in contact with Susan, the spirit will branch out into other places and strike out at people the viewer must assume have done her wrong. Like Elaine's husband Jonas, who Susan's spirit kills with a blast of steam from the building's boiler... Sometimes the spirit will even lash out at Paige.

In the first film, Tenney had included some very impressive spirit P.O.V. shots, and he does the same here, with shots that glide through the building, swoop in on cranes, and even pass through windows, keyholes, and cars.

There also arises a mystery that Paige has to solve, with the help of Russel and Mitch: as far as anyone knows, Susan Sydney is still alive. She just moved out of the apartment two years ago... So if Susan is still alive, who has Paige been talking to? If Susan is dead, what happened to her? And how dangerous might it be for Paige if she solves a murder?

Ever since renting it as soon as it came out on VHS, I've always found Witchboard 2 to be a very satisfying sequel, a great horror movie with an intriguing mystery at its core. A mystery that is seen through by a fine group of characters.

Paige is played by Ami Dolenz, an actress who I was a fan of around this time for her work in Miracle Beach, Ticks, Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings, and White Wolves: A Cry in the Wild II, and she gives a strong performance as this film's heroine. Timothy Gibbs is great as her ex Mitch, who at first comes off as a potentially dangerous jerk, but softens up as the film goes on. John Gatins, who would also appear in Pumpkinhead II as well as have a lead role in Leprechaun 3 before eventually embarking on a solid screenwriting career (Real Steel, Flight) does good work in the role of Russel, and Saturday Night Live veteran Laraine Newman makes Elaine a fun character with a goofy way of speaking.

Susan herself eventually makes an appearance, portrayed by stuntwoman Julie Michaels, who also had memorable roles in Road House and Jason Goes to Hell.

In addition to being well written and stylishly directed, Witchboard 2 is the type of sequel that takes the route of upping the carnage. While it's not a gory movie, it does have a larger bodycount than part 1, and some of the murders committed or attempted by the homicidal spirit are done in spectacular fashion, including an extended out-of-control car sequence and a wrecking ball smashing.

While I wouldn't put Witchboard 2 on the same classic level as I do the first film, it is a great follow-up that takes the rules established in its predecessor and uses them to spin its own spellbinding tale.


Kevin S. Tenney had written and directed both previous Witchboard movies, but he did not return to helm the third film in the series. At a Q&A with Tenney that I attended, he said he wasn't brought back to finish out the trilogy because Witchboard 3 was a Canadian production, so the producers wanted a Canadian director.

Tenney did, however, provide the screenplay for the third installment, co-writing it with Jon Ezrine from a story Ezrine came up with.

Peter Svatek, who has worked primarily in television and documentaries over the course of his career, was the Canadian director who was hired to bring Tenney and Ezrine's script to the screen. With cinematographer Barry Gravelle, Svatek brought a style, look, and tone to his Witchboard that is much different than the films Tenney had made. The cinematography is very warm, with Earth tones and pleasant lighting, although that pleasant lighting also casts areas into deep, dark shadows. The atmosphere of The Possession is much darker, heavier, and more oppressive than the previous two movies, giving it a feeling that makes it less appealing than its predecessors. It doesn't help that the characters aren't as interesting as those who came before, either.

The lead characters are a married couple; Brian, who has just lost his job as the film begins, and his wife Julie, who teaches cultural anthropology. Brian's bad luck takes an otherworldly turn when he spends one evening hanging out with the owner of the apartment building he and his wife live in, a wealthy man named Francis Redmond, who has a strong interest in the occult.

The movie tips its hand a little bit by opening with a narration done by Francis, wherein he tells the audience of his experience using Ouija boards, or witchboards as they were once called. Francis says he contacted "the spirit of Nargor and his cult of fertility" with a Ouija, and ends his narration by saying that he is now dead. But if he's dead, what is he doing hanging out with Brian? He doesn't appear to die within the film until after he has introduced Brian to the wonders of the Ouija.

Francis has made his riches through stock tips provided to him from the spirit world, and shows Brian how knowledgeable the dead can be about the future of stocks when a spirit advises them to buy into California Orange Juice, a stock which skyrockets the next day.

Soon after, Francis talks to Brian about the fact that he always wanted to have children but was infertile. Then he says "See ya in the funny papers" and leaps to his death from a high balcony, landing with a spike going through his head. That wound allows for one of the most disgusting things I've ever seen, when at his funeral Francis's wife sticks her finger into the hole the mortician did his best to conceal in her attempt to make sure Francis is really dead. Yuck.

Still unsuccessful in his job hunt, Brian takes Francis's Ouija board home to get some stock tips of his own. His stock buying days get off to a rocky start, but when an investor he owes $62,500 to threatens him with physical harm, a spirit shows up on the scene to kill Brian's attackers.

That experience is enough to make Brian to toss the board into the furnace in the apartment building's damp basement, but before he can do so he gets electrocuted to death, his spirit leaving his body and floating off. Paramedics arrive in time to resuscitate Brian, but after his return from the dead, he's not the same... He has undergone the possession the subtitle promised.

Brian's demeanor changes, he becomes sleazy and lascivious (and rich, earning $500,000 through stocks), he forgets the sayings he and Julie have with each other, and at night he sneaks off to the apartment that used to belong to Francis to perform a ritual in another language. A ritual that mentions the name of Nargor. He asks Julie to bear his child... He also attempts to breed with Julie's best friend, and kills her with his supernatural abilities when she doesn't go along with his plan.

While the trapped spirit of Brian watches in horror and rage from reflective surfaces, Julie has to figure out just what's going on with her husband and how to get the demon Nargor to leave his body before it's too late. As Julie comes to find out, Nargor has been moving from body to body in his quest to conceive a demon child with a human woman. The Francis that Brian knew was just another vessel for the demon, the real Francis truly was dead before the character made his appearance on screen.

Witchboard: The Possession has a very different type of storyline than the ones Tenney directed. While they had followed characters as they tried to solve the mysteries of who they were communicating with through the Ouija and what happened to them in their lives, the Ouija becomes incidental once the possession occurs.

The Possession is really just a variation on Rosemary's Baby for the most part, Julie even has a nightmare that's similar to Rosemary's "This is no dream, this is really happening!" moment in the classic Polanski film.

The execution is quite subpar, and the film is never as intriguing, intense, or exciting as the ones that it follows. The cast do fine work in their roles, but that doesn't save the film they're in. There's something off about it, it feels to me like it's lacking energy. When there's a horned demon menacing characters in an apartment but there's no sense of urgency and still not interesting, something went wrong between the script and the screen.

I've always been hard on Witchboard: The Possession. As an established fan of Witchboard and Witchboard 2: The Devil's Doorway, I rented the third film as soon as it reached video store shelves... And as I began watching it for the first time, I was almost instantly disappointed  and put off by it. In fact, until watching it for this write-up nineteen years later, I don't think I ever managed to sit through the whole movie. He may have had a hand in the screenplay, but part 3 is definitely lacking the Tenney touch.


Although its story originated from the mind of Jôjirô Okami, the same man who came up with the stories for The Mysterians, Battle in Outer Space, and Gorath, and the screenplay was written by Shinichi Sekizawa, who wrote several of the 1960s and '70s Godzilla films, Dogora, directed by original Gojira helmer Ishirô Honda, is a very different movie than the average Toho Studios kaiju film.

What sets Dogora apart from the pack is the fact that its monster - a space cell, mutated by the radiation in the atmosphere above Japan, that eventually grows into a flying jellyfish - is barely presented as a threat at all. Sure, it comes down from space and causes some destruction, it could eradicate the human race, but for the most part its presence is the cause of comedic scenarios.

The titular space monster feeds on carbon, and while that leads it to feast on coal mines and oil fields, that also means that it eats diamonds. As diamonds disappear from around the world, the police believe there's some kind of massive theft going on. Meanwhile, heists carried out by actual diamond thieves are being thwarted because the diamonds are disappearing before they can get to them. So although there is a giant monster at the center of the film, it's actually a spoof of crime movies, and the cops and robbers aspect completely overwhelms the kaiju.

It's commendable that Toho and the filmmakers would try to take a different approach to the giant monster movie with Dogora, but this particular approach didn't work very well for me. The diamond storyline didn't interest me and the comedy didn't really translate. I did enjoy the moments when the kaiju was busting things up, as a kaiju should.

KITE (2014)

Based on an often censored and sometimes outright banned hour-long anime that was originally released in 1999, Kite follows a young girl named Sawa (India Eisley) through a dystopian, heavily-polluted, post-financial collapse melting pot society - it's not supposed to resemble any specific location in our reality - as she carries out a mission of vengeance.

Traversing gang-controlled streets, Sawa endeavors to manipulate and massacre her way through the ranks of a human trafficking organization until she reaches the man in charge, the mysterious Emir. The man who had her mother and police officer father killed years earlier. Sawa intends to do whatever it takes to avenge her parents, even though she's so drug-addled that she can't even really remember them at this point.

Since the loss of her parents, Sawa has been cared for by a cop named Karl Aker (Samuel L. Jackson), her father's former partner, who provides her with weapons and does his best to keep the police force from figuring out Sawa's identity. It's a tough job, and becoming tougher as the drugs make her sloppy and take her off track.

Along her path to the Emir, Sawa meets a street kid named Oburi (Callan McAuliffe), who knew her back before her life was torn apart and may be the key to helping her get her life back together.

Directed by South African filmmaker Ralph Ziman, who joined the project a month before filming when director David R. Ellis passed away during pre-production, Kite has a unique visual style and is packed with action that features some nice moments of bloody violence - Sawa's bullets explode after they're embedded in her victims' bodies, for that little something extra.

Although the schoolgirl assassin aspect is nothing new at this point, the set-up Kite had to work with could have provided the foundation for a fun, hard-hitting action movie. However, the way it has been executed is cold and off-putting, the movie feels like it's always keeping the viewer at arms length. It's impossible to connect with the characters on an emotional level. and the way the story plays out is just never intriguing. Sawa simply moves from scene to scene and fight to fight, but it's hard to care about what's occurring on the screen.

Punches are thrown, guns are fired, body parts explode, but it's all very dull to watch.

India Eisley does strong work when allowed to, but Sawa is such a drugged out zombie for most of the running time that it's not particularly surprising that she's hard to connect with. On the other hand, it's shocking that not even Samuel L. Jackson brings life to the proceedings, instead seemingly just sleepwalking through his scenes. It's the most low-key Jackson performance I've ever seen, in a movie that desperately needed an energy boost.

Kite is a serviceable film, but if you go into it with any sort of positive expectations, you're liable to be let down.


Wrong Turn 2: Dead End director Joe Lynch was interested in returning to helm the third film in the series, but under one condition - there was a story idea floating around behind the scenes at Fox Home Entertainment that would answer further questions about the cannibal inbred mutant situation in West Virginia's Greenbrier Backcountry, "why people who survived the previous films didn't say anything, and where are the cops in all of this". Lynch loved the idea, and if that were to become the basis of part 3, he was on board.

The Wrong Turn 3 that was made doesn't cover those subjects, but it does begin with a scenario reminiscent of the set-up Fox originally wanted for part 2. Directed by Declan O'Brien (multiple Syfy monster movies, including Sharktopus) from a screenplay by Connor James Delaney, the film opens with a group of people on a white water rafting excursion. Unlike the idea for part 2, however, we won't be following these characters for long.

The four college students stop for a break on the bank of Blue Fish River and immediately start breaking slasher movie rules of conduct. There's gratuitous nudity, pot smoking, characters are revving up for some premarital sex... And then they're interrupted by the arrival of Three Finger, the last surviving killer from the previous two movies. He makes gory work of three of the campers, but the fourth, a girl named Alex, escapes into the forest.

The next people to stray into Three Finger's territory are in a prison bus; three guards transferring five prisoners (one of whom is an undercover cop), taking the backroads from Grafton Penitentiary to their destination, a prison called Hazelton, because some of their passengers have been planning a mid-transfer escape. The bus is indeed sabotaged mid-transfer, but not by the prisoner's pals. It's run off the road by Three Finger.

With the bus out of commission, the criminals quickly take control, but the cops, thieves, and murderers are still stranded in the middle of nowhere and being hunted by Three Finger. Three Finger is joined by his preteen son Three Toe in this one, Baby Splooge from part 2 grown up. Three Toe doesn't survive against the weapon-toting criminals for very long, though. His brutal death just gives Three Finger more reason to pick off these interlopers.

As they seek to escape from the forest, the cops and criminals soon cross paths with Alex, herself still seeking civilization. This isn't a good group for her to get caught up with, but she's kept safe from the prisoners doing anything to her (for now) by them being in imminent danger.

Unfortunately, there's less of an emphasis put on the characters' struggle for survival than there is on the bickering that comes from their alpha male attitudes and some of them being on opposing sides of the law. The bulk of the film's running time is made up of these lame characters tossing around bad tough guy talk. This element is made even worse by the unnecessary addition of the discovery of a wrecked armored truck packed with cash. The riches within this vehicle give even more reason for arguments and distrust.

This is a slasher that doesn't really seem to be interested in being a slasher. There are some good, gory kills in there, sure, but they're interspersed with deadly dull character interactions that make the movie feel like it's moving along at a crawl.

The film is dragged down further by budget limitations that have a clear effect on the final product. There are cringeworthy visual effects and the fact that the movie was shot in Bulgaria shines through every time there's a local hire on the screen who has had their dialogue poorly dubbed.

Wrong Turn 2 had been an example of how good a direct-to-video sequel could be with the right talent involved. Part 3 is the sort of movie that makes people wary of direct-to-video sequels.

The best thing about Wrong Turn 3: Left for Dead is really its title. That goofy pun of a subtitle, I love it. The movie itself, not so much.

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